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Encouraging Academic Integrity in Online Education

By Judson S. Garrett

The conveniences that make online education attractive also create new opportunities for academic dishonesty. Despite this, pedagogy and technology may be deployed to encourage academic integrity and ensure a level playing field for online students. Providing eLearners with a sense of community decreases their feelings of isolation and apathy while instilling a shared notion of academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty frequently results from a combination of opportunity, culture, and desperation. Cheating not only diminishes learning but also devalues degrees and undermines institutional missions. Reducing the incentives and opportunities for cheating improves student mastery of course material while increasing the value of online degrees and certifications. Course design, sense of community, and proctoring technology combine to limit the impact of cheating on assignments that are difficult to monitor, and ensure that students are consistently and impartially observed during more high-stakes assessments.

Introduction: A Three-Step Approach to Academic Integrity

Digital classrooms offer advantages and challenges for distance learners as well as educators. Automated, remote proctoring is one part of ensuring that online assessments are given on a level playing field while adding value to online degrees. Educators must not only enact technological safeguards against academic dishonesty, but also engage eLearners in definitions of academic integrity, community and, ultimately, education. Institutions that emphasize mastery and personal integrity over performance and rule compliance produce better learning outcomes for their students and increase the value of their degrees while satisfying accrediting agencies. Although eLearners often view technologies that detect plagiarism or remotely proctor assessments negatively, it is possible to change attitudes toward these safeguards through transparency, consistency, and affirmations of academic integrity. As a result, institutions that consistently emphasize academic integrity through pedagogy and technology are better positioned to deal with increased state and federal oversight, affirm core values, and fulfill their missions.

Recognizing motivations for academic dishonesty is an essential precondition for developing a holistic approach to academic integrity. Administrators, instructors, and students all have a role to play in acknowledging why students resort to cheating. Every member of the academic community must be a part of any meaningful solution. Issues of academic dishonesty are not unique to digital classrooms, but eLearners face unique challenges that deserve specific attention. Isolated learners without a clear sense of belonging and purpose are more susceptible to the pressures of cheating, and learning online can exacerbate these feelings.

Step One: Course Design

A student’s ability to recall and distinguish information is generally measured through objective questions that ask him or her to correctly identify answers through multiple choice, true/false or fill-in-the-blank responses. These types of exam questions are more susceptible to cheating than subjective questions requiring interpretive, applied or evaluative responses. However, subjective or in-depth responses also require more time to grade, and not all course content lends itself to such inquiry. One way to measure objective knowledge while reducing instances of cheating is to offer frequent, low-stakes quizzes throughout the semester. Additionally, applied projects with specific stages of completion help instructors evaluate student progress while discouraging cheating.

Developing assignments that prohibit cheating is easier said than done. Until institutions are willing to reward educators who rethink traditional grading and incentivize instructional designers to create assessments that are more experiential and less susceptible to cheating, the motivation for change will not materialize. As traditional classroom practices are being called into question through more competency-based assignments and flipped classrooms, online educators must resist the temptation to simply transfer traditional lecture-based instructional materials to online courses.

Step Two: Community

Academic integrity is strongly correlated with a sense of community. Distance learners are particularly susceptible to feelings of isolation that weaken students’ attachment to academic honor codes and learning objectives. Despite the perception that community is difficult to cultivate online, discussion boards and collaborative projects – along with real time (synchronous) sessions – can help foster a sense of camaraderie that makes honor codes and academic integrity proclamations more meaningful. Specific reminders and affirmative statements to uphold academic integrity can also be effective barriers to cheating, particularly when given prior to completing an assessment or turning in an assignment. The more students feel connected to one another, the less motivated they are to engage in deviant behavior.

Again, understanding motivations for academic dishonesty is essential. Just as instructors and instructional designers need appropriate signals and incentives from administrators to create courses that are less susceptible to cheating, learners require cues and explanations that link academic integrity to their coursework. Many students are motivated to cheat out of feelings of competition, apathy or fear. Recognizing and addressing these feelings within the context of specific learning objectives will allow students to understand not only what academic integrity is, but also how it relates to their learning. Too often students are left with the impression that the end of an assessment is a grade, or that not perfecting an assignment on the first attempt is failure. Continual reinforcement of the concept of academic integrity as a shared value and integral part of education can help foster a sense of community and engender purpose in learning.

Step Three: Technology

Establishing clear boundaries for individual work and academic integrity provides a solid foundation for student success. The assumption that other students are cheating is a driving factor in many instances of academic dishonesty. Without a belief that others are competing on a level playing field, students feel pressured to cheat to keep up with their peers. Technological safeguards can prevent cheating by reassuring learners that testing conditions are consistently monitored for fairness.

Automated, remote proctoring is available at a low cost and allows every assessment to be proctored. When proctoring becomes a routine part of online quizzes, tests, and exams, students not only believe others are playing by the rules, but their attitudes toward online proctoring also improve. Employing automated, remote proctoring early, and often, in online courses reinforces presumptions of academic integrity while allowing students to become familiar with this less intrusive technology during low stakes assessments. The more commonplace fully automated proctoring becomes, the less students believe their peers are cheating and the more comfortable they are being monitored remotely.

Trusting, but verifying, student work can go a long way toward developing expectations of academic integrity. Learners who are confident in reasonable safeguards that equitably prevent cheating are more likely to uphold expectations of academic integrity. The limitations of exclusively relying on technology should be clear, however. After all, technology can also facilitate academic dishonesty; without courses designed to limit opportunities for cheating–along with a strong sense of community reinforcing academic integrity–students and instructors will merely engage in a never-ending arms race of evasion and detection.

Conclusion: Preventing Cheating vs. Catching Cheaters

Rather than waiting to react to instances of academic dishonesty in a punitive or ad hoc manner, educators must engage learners in conversations about academic integrity before unethical behaviors occur. No system that merely seeks to detect instances of cheating will adequately confront the motivations for academic dishonesty. Every educator must identify expectations of academic integrity beyond the common boilerplate language that appears on most institutional websites and course syllabi. Without a comprehensive strategy, individual instructors are left to police student work while disaffected learners are tempted to put their academic careers in jeopardy.

Administrators, instructors and students have a shared interest in stopping cheating before it occurs, but it cannot be assumed that all agree about its meaning. Frequent and specific conversations are needed to clarify and underscore standards and penalties. Defining academic integrity in the context of each course not only allows learners to better understand what constitutes cheating, but also provides educators with valuable opportunities for explicating learning objectives. Together, teachers and students can develop an understanding of education that fundamentally links academic integrity to learning. Only through a holistic approach toward developing academic integrity can institutions increase the value of online degrees while improving learning outcomes within digital classrooms and beyond.

Judson S. Garrett, MA, is an innovative social entrepreneur and researcher in the fields of leadership, ethics, and educational technology. Having taught at the secondary and post-secondary levels, he has over a dozen years’ experience designing and implementing curricula for classroom, digital, and hybrid courses. With his experience as a teacher, administrator, and coach, Judson is adept at helping educators improve learning outcomes through increased participation, collaborative learning, and an emphasis on questions over answers. As Director of Education for Proctorio, he is currently focused on issues related to academic integrity, student privacy, and maximizing student success in online education.

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